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Lawmakers rip TxDOT for failures

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“I have zero confidence in the Commission at this point,” expressed a disgusted State Rep. Lyle Larson. The criticism of the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) from lawmakers at today’s House Select Committee on Transportation Funding didn’t stop there.

A visibly angry Rep. Ron Simmons was upset the Transportation Commission didn’t adopt some basic principles the Committee sent over in a formal letter. Transportation Commission Chairman Ted Houghton sent a curt reply, drawing a visceral response.

"I read it as a ‘screw you’...I don’t appreciate it,” remarked Simmons.

The Committee had considerable discussion at its last meeting, which resulted in outlining six criteria for TxDOT to follow. Simmons expected the Commission to adopt those principles, which in essence outlined the legislative intent of House Bill 1 passed during last year’s third special session. Instead, the Committee received a brush-off letter from Houghton.

Simmons expressed that “these are just basic principles they should be following.”

Those principles are:
1. Formula allocation (in other words, allocate funds by a set formula, not politics)
2. Bottom-up approach to project development
3. MPOs have broad-based, collaborative public involvement procedures that involve the Texas Department of Transportation
4. Project selection should come from the regions
5. Legislature should give greater flexibility to the Texas Department of Transportation to get projects ready
6. Greater focus on transportation system versus projects creating opportunities for statewide benefits as part of the approach

Chairman Joe Pickett concurred with Simmons saying, “If they were doing what they should be doing, we wouldn’t have had the discussion at all.”

TxDOT Executive Director Joe Weber agreed they were principles they should already be following. Yet the agency did not take any definitive action to show their intent to implement them.

Pickett further chastised the Department for failing to follow the directives in HB 1 to identify $100 million in savings from its operations costs out of ‘funds appropriated.’ TxDOT reported $140 million in savings, but counted the sale of excess real estate and fleet vehicles in that figure. Pickett was clear, since he wrote the legislation, that he meant ongoing operational savings, not one-time, non-recurring ‘fire sales’ of assets.

Another sore spot involves Prop 1 and the agency’s lack of prioritizing funds for the most needed projects. Pickett identified $2.2 billion in new funds outside of the potential addition of Prop 1 oil and gas severance tax revenues, should Texas voters approve it this November.

“This is becoming a very sore subject with me,” Pickett added as he criticized how the agency is spending existing revenues and exploding the size of its Unified Transportation Program (UTP) (from 700 pages to over 1,200) with projects that are clearly not a priority. “We have projects in the MTP that have no business being being in there. They were put in there to appease some person…they’re just pie in the sky. There’s no vetting.”

He also expressed concern about how difficult it’s become to answer the oft repeated question from the media and the public about how Prop 1 funding will be spent. The legislation specifies it’ll go into the State Highway Fund and be spent according to existing funding formulas, and yet TxDOT formed a ‘Blue Ribbon’ Committee to study how the Transportation Commission will recommend it be spent.

Pickett said he fears they’ll recommend specific projects versus allow every area of the state to benefit from what could be the largest infusion of cash into the highway fund in its history. These mixed signals are causing heartburn among lawmakers and confusion among the public, to say the least.

Back to Larson’s point.

“This (street car project) is the worst case that I’ve seen in 20 years where the Commission made an arbitrary decision to get involved in a transit project in San Antonio that was universally disliked by everybody in the community. The elected officials rejected it. We wrote letters asking y’all to rescind the agreement and put the money back into mobility projects, specifically on 281 or 1604…when the letter I got back said, ‘we’re going to let them spend on whatever they want to spend it on’ when the order was specific for that transit project.”

Yesterday, the Metropolitan Transit Authority, Via, voted to keep $92 million in state Texas Mobility Funds (TMF), despite local officials pulling the plug on the street car project that the Commission directly earmarked those funds for. TxDOT swapped local Advanced Transportation District (ATD) revenues with TMF money in 2012 since voters were promised ATD taxes wouldn’t go to light rail, which stirred up controversy from the start. Allowing the transit authority to retain state funds for a now defunct project is causing further outrage in San Antonio.

“What we have done is defied the integrity of the vote that took place in 2004 and took the full $92 million and gave it to the transit authority. That was never the intent of the ATD in San Antonio,” Larson railed as he excoriated TxDOT.

Fifty percent of the ATD sales tax goes to the transit authority, 25% to the city for major arterial roads and 25% to the county to leverage highway dollars. Initially, officials took all of the road money and allocated it to the street car. After the street car blew up, all of the road money is now going to bus stops and transit projects. The cost of a premium bus stop is $80,000. Via would have to install over one-thousand luxury bus stops in order to blow through $92 million.

Transportation Commissioner Victor Vandergriff nailed it. What TxDOT lacks is good leadership. He’s a lone vote on a Commission of five appointees of the governor. Until there’s a change in leadership, the constant consternation and frustration with this agency will continue. Thankfully, help is on the way. The next Texas governor will get two new appointees to join Vandergriff in creating a new majority on the Commission. February can’t come fast enough.

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